I grew up in Nigeria, in the town of Ibadan, population about 1 million where one of the school’s traditions was a year-end recognition day. It was the end of my ninth grade year when the head of school invited all the parents to school to celebrate the final day of the semester with their children.
On that fateful day, the teacher made a dramatic entrance into the classroom and announced that she was going to recognize the students in numerical order from the top performer on down. First-place position went to a student named Toun. Hearing Toun’s name called first was really no surprise to any of us because Toun had consistently been the best in our class every year since we were in first grade. She was petite, well-dressed, well-mannered and was an intellectually gifted girl who knew all the answers to all the questions. She even loved doing homework and complained when we didn’t get assigned any to do. After her name was announced, Toun received her certificate, hugged her parents and, in keeping with the usual practice, left the class with her family.
The countdown continued, and as the room emptied out, the applause that followed the reading of each name became quieter. By the time the teacher reached number 20, the classroom was silent. When she got to 30, the remaining students huddled together in the middle of the classroom, supporting each other in our shame.
The teacher, however, continued her announcements – number 31,32, 33 – in the same enthusiastic tone as if the classroom were full. And then the moment that would forever change my life finally arrived. The teacher announced, “the 34th position goes to Tunde.” My classmate standing next to me was so delighted that he let out a loud yell and literally ran out of the classroom overjoyed. Only I remained standing.
Finally the teacher said, “the 35th position for this academic year goes to Benjamin Ola. Akande.” I walked briskly to the front of the classroom, received my certificate, then turned and met my dad at the door. His car was parked less than 100 yards from the classroom. It was the longest walk in my life. It felt like eternity. My dad said nothing to me as we made that long silent walk to the car. But then, after we reached the car, he turned and said, “Benjamin, we can only go up from here.” From that day onward my nickname became #35.
My parents never stopped encouraging me, and with their support I successfully left that day behind and turned my academic career around.
Two years ago I was reminded of just how far I had come when while visiting my parents in Nigeria, I decided to take a walk around the old neighborhood. As I walked outside our compound, I heard a familiar voice call out, “Hey, 35, is that you?” Stunned…I didn’t answer, I didn’t look back, I just kept walking. I kept telling myself this person surely isn’t calling to me. After all, I’ve been gone for 30 years. There must be a lot of 35s in the neighborhood by now!
So, I started walking faster trying to run away from my past. But curiosity got the best of me and I finally had the courage to turn around to see who had recognized me after all these years. There stood number one, Toun, a blast from my past.
“What are you doing these days?” she asked and I told her I lived in the United States and was dean of the school of Business and Technology at Webster University. Toun shared her story with me, saying she was now president of one of the top commercial banks in the country. She was the same Toun, inquisitive, smart, successful, always taking charge.
It was then I told Toun what I felt to be true: that I owed a great deal of whatever success I had achieved in life so far to her because she had set the bar for all of us so high. It was a unique meeting between number 1 and number 35, and before we parted ways we promised to stay in touch.
Only a few months later after returning to St. Louis, I received a call from my dad. Toun was sick, he said, and I may want to reach out to her. I called immediately and was told by Toun that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and that it had spread to her vital organs. Despite the prognosis, Toun was upbeat with her voice radiating the strength and composure that she had shown since our younger days.
“Toun, you’ve got to be strong,” I said. But then, Toun turned the table on me. “Look 35, I’m going to beat this stuff. Don’t worry about me. I’m going to be ok.” As the conversation wound down, Toun told me she was proud of me.
Less than two weeks later on a cold Saturday around 3am, I received a phone call from my dad. He called to tell me that Toun had passed away. I hung up the phone, sat up in bed and cried. I had lost a friend, a childhood mentor who had been blindsided by a disease that takes away so many women in the prime of their life.
Mine is a story that speaks to using one’s strength from within to overcome and to seek success. There are hundreds of 35s in America today. Perhaps you know one of them. Perhaps, like me, you are one of them. This begs the question: what are you willing to do about it?
I want to appeal to you this morning to expect to do better than the world expects of you. Expect to live in a bigger world than the one you see. I challenge you to have a sense of constructive impatience and urge you to dream with your eyes wide open.
My message to everyone here today is that when things don’t work out as they should don’t run away from challenges. Seek alternative avenues. Remember, there are many roads that lead to success. I have learned that it is important that you set goals that are not within easy reach. Find value in focusing on purpose and not on avoiding failure.
My appeal to all of you today is to dream with your eyes wide open and to stay focused on the future.
My prayer for you is that you will all live a meaningful life and become true catalysts in the great drama of life.
“May you have enough happiness to give you satisfaction, enough trials to make you strong, enough hope to give you fulfillment.”
Dream big dreams and prepare yourself to pursue those dreams. I ask that you seize the moment, for it is already later than you think and please, don’t live your life content with being good. Believe me, there is nothing wrong with being good, but your ultimate goal is to be better than good, because in my humble opinion being good is just not good enough anymore; strive for greatness.
And so I end with a poem by Patrick O’Leary that captures the essence of the journey that lies ahead for each and every one of you. The poem is entitled: “Nobody Knows.”
“There’s a place I travel when I want to grow, and nobody knows it but me. The roads don’t go there and the signs stay home, and nobody knows it but me. It’s far, far away, and way, way afar, it’s over the moon and the sea and high atop the mountains, for wherever you’re going that’s wherever you are. And nobody knows it but you.”